In the last week or so you may or may not have seen a ‘Stay home. Save lives.’ ad with images of the insides of four houses. It was rather swiftly pulled after many, many people pointed out the highly regressive images inside the four houses. One bloke sat on his backside on the sofa alongside a woman and child in one, and ALL THREE of the others were of women doing household chores. How the heck did the ad get approved? It’s astonishing really. The Unstereotype Alliance (an industry-led initiative convened by UN Women to end harmful gender stereotypes in advertising) wrote about it, as did many others. The Unstereotype Alliance are actively trying to change things though, and that’s what we need to focus on; the opportunities to change things.

This brings me neatly on to a piece of research that came out on 15 December 2020 entitled Unlimited Potential – the final report of the Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood. The report is the culmination of an 18-month process of research and evidence gathering, co-chaired by Prof Becky Francis, now Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation and Rt Hon. David Lammy MP, in his capacity as former chair of the APPG on Fatherhood. The Commission brings together an influential group of stakeholders, from Mumsnet and the National Childbirth Trust, to the National Education Union and campaigners Let Toys Be Toys, to Usborne Books and educational publisher Pearson Plc. The Commission was established by leading gender equality campaigning charity, the Fawcett Society, and calls for changes in education, parenting and the commercial sector.

The report found that in an audit of 141 high street shops and 44 online retailers, children’s clothes, cards and stationery are often sold using explicit gender segregation, and toys are still sold using gender stereotyped colours and grouping of “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys”.

Yet, 66% of parents want to see companies voluntarily advertise toys to boys and girls in the same way. They want to see toy companies drop “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in their advertising and product design, designers to end stereotypical imagery and slogans on clothes, and improve the representation of female characters in books, TV and online content. Yes! The report calls for an end to the “princessification” of girls and “toxification” of boys.

The Commission calls for companies to pledge to make changes to eradicate stereotyping from children’s products. Toy manufacturers should commit to end gender-specific product briefs, and to end single-gender focus groups for product market research. Toy companies should drop teams that work on “toys for boys” or “toys for girls”. Toy manufacturers should commit to restructuring their business so that internal business units are not ordered by gender, from product design through to marketing and advertising. Retailers and advertisers should reflect on their products and marketing, and take steps to reduce stereotyping.

The report covers much more than I’ve mentioned here as I wanted to keep this more specific to marketing, but it’s horrifying to read that gender stereotypes intersect with stereotypes about race to cause harm, such as school exclusion of black boys and that gender stereotypes can contribute to the abuse and harassment of LGBT young people and adults. The authors do end with optimism though “…this is also a message of hope. If Government, companies, educators and parents take action, we can challenge stereotypes and change lives, making it possible for our children to live with fewer limitations”. You can read the full report via https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/news/gender-stereotypes-significantly-limiting-childrens-potential-causing-lifelong-harm-commission-finds.

And why does this matter to me? All of us in comms play a role here. If I was part of the process of approval for the stay home ad I know I’d have picked up on the images. I’ve said a gazillion times that we all have an unconscious bias – it’s inbuilt, but being aware of it is just the start. We need research like this to prove why these things matter.

There’s some great work out there on challenging stereotypes. The Greater Manchester Older People’s Network recently ran a photography competition to find positive representations of older people. The results are amazing and some of the winning work is now being used in campaigns across Greater Manchester.

And look at this corker of a positive image on a road sign.

If we see bad stuff like lazy stereotypes (like use of Karen) or harmful stereotypes (also Karen) we need to call it out, ideally BEFORE anything gets approved for public consumption. We are part of the story. We need to listen – and in general, listen more than we talk. And we need to speak up, speak out and make sure comms represent all of us.


Blimey – I wrote on a related theme 4 years ago! This on Sexism in advertising from 2017 https://deadgoodwithwords.co.uk/2017/07/19/sexism-in-advertising/